Edinburgh’s selection for European defeat by Clermont raises questions

Absence of key players in Challenge Cup opener did not suggest a complete commitment from the capital club

Slow starts have plagued Edinburgh and Glasgow, and both had more or less lost their first European Cup matches by half-time. Both recovered somewhat in the second half, too late. In the past French clubs’ commitment to the European Cups, especially the Challenge one, have sometimes been questioned. Last week Edinburgh’s selection raised that sort of doubt.

To go into a match away to Clermont Auvergne without Ben Healy, Jamie Ritchie, Pierre Schoeman and WP Nel did not suggest a complete commitment. Admittedly Healy hadn’t missed a URC match or even a few minutes of one and Ritchie has only recently recovered from injury, but the two international props were badly missed as Clermont dominated the set scrum, winning penalties in the first half.

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There were other worrying things about Edinburgh’s performance. Ben Vellacott is a skilful and tough scrum-half, but he does seem to indulge in excessive box-kicking. This of course is common now, even though, more often than not, it simply hands possession back to the other side. It did so time and again last week. True, Vellacott was far too often receiving slow ball, but it is surely better sometimes to give a pop pass to a forward and hope that when he takes a tackle, the ball can be recycled quickly this time.

Ben Healy was among the players rested by Edinburgh for last week’s away clash with Clermont Auvergne.Ben Healy was among the players rested by Edinburgh for last week’s away clash with Clermont Auvergne.
Ben Healy was among the players rested by Edinburgh for last week’s away clash with Clermont Auvergne.

Then Edinburgh’s most dangerous runner, Duhan van der Merwe, was able to contribute very little. He has taken to positioning himself so close to the touchline that he has no choice on receiving a pass other than to cut inside. I don’t understand it. If he is even five metres in from touch, a question is put to the defender: which way is he going, to my right or left? If he’s on the touchline, life is easier for opponents. Very strange.

One can only hope for something much better from both Scottish clubs this weekend. Meanwhile we can take some comfort from Blair Kinghorn’s two-tries debut for Toulouse, and from the way Finn Russell and Cameron Redpath are playing for Bath.

On a different and important note, it was good this week to find fellow The Scotsman columnist Fraser Brown, the now veteran Glasgow and Scotland hooker, deploring the often vile criticism of players and, perhaps more importantly, referees that is increasingly common, and not only on anti-social media. He spoke admirably in defence of Owen Farrell who was apparently booed by a section of the crowd in South Africa last weekend when Saracens played the Bulls. Such abuse of players is deplorable. There has always been some but in the past it was often mild and even amusing, as in the case of the elderly lady whom I heard informing a visiting prop that he was “a dirty player, like your feyther afore ye”.

Abuse of referees is of a different order, and it is, I’m sorry to say, encouraged by the readiness of some players to protest against decisions or to call for referees to take notice of some undetected wrong-doing. We really must get back to what used to be the accepted rule: that only captains should speak to the referee – and they should so cautiously. The referee is the judge of play, both fair and foul, and that should be it.

There’s a consequence on the field, and it’s an unwelcome one. The more nasty criticism is directed at referees, the more reluctant they will be to trust their own judgment, and therefore the readier to turn to the TMO, seeking cover for their own view of things. We all – well, most of us – dislike long confabulations between the referee on the field and the TMO sitting before his TV. Well, if abuse has referees more and more often seeking back-up or a second opinion, the more often there will be breaks in play, often long ones.

Restoring the referee’s authority is desirable. My own view is that in general there should be no intervention from the TMO except when the referee seeks his or her opinion – not, for instance, the TMO telling the man on the field “I think there may have been a forward pass several stages back”. The one unprompted intervention from the THO should be in the case of foul play. Otherwise the old Law remains good: “the referee is the sole judge of play”.